The God of Opportunities

Sunday School Lesson for December 2, 2001

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:29

Focal Teaching Passage: Deuteronomy 1:1-46

Special Notice: The lessons from Deuteronomy will be based upon the NIV translation of the Bible. The "Focal Teaching Passages" set forth in this series may not always correspond to those suggested by the editors of the LifeWay curriculum.

Setting the Stage (1:1-5)

Verses 1-3

With the opening lines of this book—"These are the words Moses spoke"—we find Moses making an address to "all Israel" as the people of the nation stood poised "in the desert east of the Jordan." While their exact location is in dispute, it is apparent that "the words Moses spoke" to them were uttered in the wilderness "in the fortieth year" following the exodus from Egypt (v. 3). In this context, the reference to "all Israel" is to be understood as including past, present, and future Israelites, thus stressing their covenant solidarity as one nation before God. As will become evident, Moses will address the present generation of Israelites as if they, too, participated in both the blessings and sins of the previous generation.

The words that Moses began to speak, however, were not his own for he "proclaimed to the Israelites all that the Lord had commanded him" (v. 3). Verse 5 identifies the contents of Moses’ message as "this law." Here "law" is used in its widest sense to indicate that Moses’ main goal was "to interpret and apply teachings already given [particularly that related to their covenant obligations] and to lead the people to appropriate response" (Donald F. Ackland, Studies in Deuteronomy, 18). As we shall observe in our study of this book, the "relationship between the words of Moses and the words of God in Deuteronomy is sometimes so close that they merge imperceptibly, making exegetical separation quite difficult" (Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy, New International Biblical Commentary, Vol. 4, 21).

According to verses 2 and 3, the simple journey that should have taken "eleven days"—from Sinai, or "Horeb," to "Kadesh Barnea"—had, due to the nations’ sin, taken forty years in all. In the midst of this dramatic setting the present generation of Israelites was placed under divine obligation to make the most of their God-given opportunities.


From Horeb to Kadesh Barnea (1:6-25)

Verses 6-11

Moses now recalls for the nation of Israel how God directed them to depart from the region of Sinai—"you have stayed long enough at this mountain" (v.6)—and to "advance into the hill country of the Amorites" (v.7). Here we note that the covenant name of the Lord, Yahweh—"the Lord our God" (v.6)—is employed by Moses in order to stress God’s faithfulness to His promises made to Abraham (v.8). According to God’s initial word to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), there were three basic elements of the covenant agreement:

Verses 12-18

As the promise of God was literally being realized in the dramatic numerical growth of the people, Moses called out for help—"how can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself?" Here, he recalls for the Israelites how God led him to organize the leadership of the nation so that the differences among "brother Israelites" could be resolved in a proper manner. Once again, God’s faithfulness and gracious dealings with the nation are set before the new generation of Israelites as an impetus to obedience and trust.

Verses 19-25

Next, Moses recounts how the former Israelites departed from Sinai and "went toward the hill country of the Amorites" and ultimately on to "Kadesh Barnea" (v. 19). At the point of their arrival Moses once again confirmed the divine word of promise and instruction—"See, the Lord your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the Lord, the God of your fathers, told you" (v.21). Here we see again that faith and obedience were required of the people of Israel if they were to realize the blessings promised by their covenant God.

Verses 22-25 recount how the people first desired to spy out the land before attempting to enter it. This action, while not unusual among ancient peoples, revealed an apparent weakness of their faith in God’s promises (Thompson, 87). Interestingly, according to this reckoning, Moses himself agreed that the plan made sense—"The idea seemed good to me" (v. 23). The report of the twelve spies, having returned with some of the land’s fruit, confirmed its beauty and productivity—"It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us" (v.25).


Recalling Past Sins (1:26-46)

Verses 26-33

In this section of his speech to Israel, Moses brings to light the exact nature of Israel’s sin against God. Three specific transgressions are delineated in the hearing of the new Israelite generation for the purpose of warning them against similar acts of rebellion (Wright, Deuteronomy, 30-32):

Verses 34-40

In these verses the tragic consequences of the earlier generation’s sin is recounted for the benefit of the younger Israelites. As noted in verse 34, God’s judgment took the form of a solemn oath—"Not a man of this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your forefathers." With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the only Israelites who would live to inherit the promised land would be the "children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land" (v. 39).

Verses 41-46

The story of Israel’s rebellion continues as Moses describes how the Israelites refused to "turn around and set out toward the desert" (v. 40) as God had ordered, but foolishly moved ahead to engage the Amorites in battle—"so every one of you put on his weapons, thinking it is easy to go up into the hill country" (v. 41). However, despite their "confession" of sin (v. 41), the Lord determined to allow the obstinate nation to experience the consequences of their disobedience—"I will not be with you. You will be defeated by your enemies" (v. 42). Indeed, just as the Lord had spoken, the Israelites presumptuously marched against the people of Canaan (v.43) and were roundly defeated, being thoroughly pummeled "from Seir all the way to Hormah" (v. 44). The name "Hormah" is related to the Hebrew word for "destruction." Ironically, the Israelites fled to a place whose very name "suggested annihilation" (Thompson, 89).

This section ends with the recollection of how the defeated people of God "came back and wept before the Lord" (v. 45). Yet, because of their hardness of heart the Lord "paid no attention" to them and "turned a deaf ear" to their cries. Ultimately, a journey that should have taken only a few short days lasted forty years in all. Note the tragic postscript to this judgment in 2:15—"The Lord’s hand was against them until he had completely eliminated them from the camp."


Major Themes for Application and Discussion


One: The relationship between grace and commandment: Notice that in Scripture the pattern is that God’s grace is announced first, then commandments or obligations are set forth. This is the fundamental structure of the covenant relationship and the basic framework found throughout the Bible. Note these two prominent examples:

Exodus 20:2

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me . . . .

Romans 12:1

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-- this is your spiritual act of worship.

What happens when the order is reversed—commandment first, then grace or blessing?



Two: The relationship between promise and obedience: Are God’s promises and blessings automatic? That is, once we have become recipients of His grace in salvation are there any requirements placed upon us? Are we simply to sit back and enjoy His blessings, or is there work to do? Consider once again the passages above. Can you think of any other passages that help us to see this relationship? Hint: Look carefully at Titus 2:11-12.




Three: The tragic sin of doubting God’s Word: Disbelief is a serious sin against God. How do modern believers evidence this sin? Think carefully about the subtle ways this sin infiltrates our lives.




Four: The consequences of presumption: In our lesson passage we observed how Israel suffered defeat because they presumed upon the grace of God (1:41-46). Are there any lessons for us here?